The Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theater opened "What the Butler Saw" by Joe Orton last night. Producer Tina Tseng and director David McMahon took a tired comedy and made an equally tired show. The cast of "What the Butler Saw" are on the last leg of their journey through the summer and they are starting to show their weariness.
The script of "What the Butler Saw" is a sad comedy from 1969 that has very little to do with today's society. The story is about a psychiatrist named Dr. Prentice who tries to seduce the woman he is interviewing for the job of secretary. When his wife walks in on them, he lies to prevent a scandal. The first lie leads to more lies, which mushroom into insanity as a hotel bellboy, a government psychiatrist and a police sergeant enter the scene. Characters reverse gender and assume disguises in an attempt to create humor.
Instead of being humorous, though, the play simply rolls on with repeated laughs that aren't funny the fifth time. The play is loaded with Freudian humor and innuendo that should only be taken in small doses. Although the actors' performances are better than the script merits, the troupe seemed to have lost the enthusiasm it had when it performed "Baby With the Bathwater" just a few weeks ago.
Players would fall out of character often and would sometimes look out at the audience as if to make sure someone was still watching them. The only two players innocent of this were Sumalee Gunanukorn, who played the secretary Geraldine Barclay, and Alexander Pak, who played the government representative Dr. Rance.
Gunanukorn wailed realistically at the needed moment when her character was certified insane, and Pak was tastefully irrational as the certifying doctor. These two actors managed to play their roles consistently while the other players' characters fell to pieces between lines.
Players who seemed to have no problem staying in character in "Baby With the Bathwater" simply couldn't stay there through this play. Obviously "Butler" director David McMahon was not as demanding as "Bathwater" directors Lizzy Ratner and Emily Gardiner had been with the same cast. Michael Stone seemed to lack direction in "Butler." And Emily Drugge, who played opposite him, showed similar slips of character.
The set, on the other hand, completely met all the demands placed upon it. Against one backdrop, designer John Ruark Was able to hold three distinct scenes and a couch enclosed with curtains. The set looked as if it was made very cheaply, but with excellent skill. An upside-down garbage can became a table and the frame for the curtains looked as if it were hammered together the day before. This gave an odd look to the backdrop that matched the oddness of the setting.
The set also provided for excellent stage movement. Every character seemed to find a new way to walk onto the stage. A large window was placed into one flat so a garden scene could be created. This not only helped build consistency because the audience could see characters before they entered, but also made for good low humor as Prentice ducks under the window to avoid being seen.
The lighting works with the scenery to make even small portions of the stage their own rooms. One comical touch is the final scene where the lights fade to a spotlight on a large golden phallus, which is the image the audience takes with them as they leave.
Unfortunately, that was one of the few shining moments of the play. "What the Butler Saw" is a disappointing end to Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theater's season. After most of the summer the skilled actors in the troupe were no match for a tired script and an equally tired director. Luckily for us, school is on the way and we can look forward to something, anything, else.